Issue: March 2001
Off the Auction Block

Becky Everett Haney

Antique instrument navigates from watery grave to museum display.


“Going once, going twice, sold!” With these words from the Sotheby’s of London auctioneer, The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va., acquired one of the world’s rarest historical navigation instruments. The 17th-century silver-plated Portuguese astrolabe was recovered in November 1999 from a wreck site at Passa Pau, Santiago, in the Cape Verde Islands off the western coast of Africa, and is the 84th of its kind found in the world.

    The astrolabe is unusual in that it is silver-plated, signed and dated “Nicolae Ruffo, 1645.” Developed by the Portuguese in the late 16th century as an instrument that would accurately measure the altitude of the sun above the horizon, the astrolabe fills a missing link in the museum’s 900-piece collection of navigational instruments.

    “With the purchase of the astrolabe, The Mariners’ Museum truly ranks among the world’s major navigational collections,” says Mörzer Bruyns, senior curator at the Nederlands Scheepvaartmuseum. Bruyns placed the winning bid of $161,000 on the astrolabe at the December auction on behalf of the Virginia museum.

    Future plans for the astrolabe include exhibition, study and conservation before the instrument goes on permanent display within the museum’s Age of Exploration gallery. For more information, contact the museum at 757-596-2222 or 800-581-7245, or visit